Raising the criteria for sacred cows

In dog training the way you get the behavior you want, really want, is by constantly raising the criteria. This means that you stop rewarding the behavior that is ‘almost’ what you want and ask for more or better from the dog. When you get it, you reward it. If you want your dog to ‘down’ you don’t settle for one of those lowered, but resting on their elbows kind of ‘downs’. That might be ok if you are shaping the behavior but you better not continue to reward it, or that’s all you’re likely to get. Expect more from those capable of doing more and reward for better.

It seems that in the world of animal rescue far too many of us are willing to settle for, and reward, not quite good enough behavior from the people performing it. Typically when I bring this up I get the routine responses of; “Well at least they’re doing something” or “It’s better than nothing” or there’s a list of reasons why ‘better’ is difficult or impossible to attain. And then there are those who chose to go on the attack with, “And what are YOU doing to help?”

Though each response has a reasonable point to make, they seem to miss the point I’m trying to get at which is-we can do better but not until we raise the criteria for what constitutes a successful ‘rescue’. As it stands now simply getting a dog out of a shelter or out of an abusive situation and into a home is ‘good enough’ and heaven forbid anyone is evaluated for the way they do it. In my opinion it’s like rewarding one of those, almost but not quite, ‘downs’. It may be good enough for you but it won’t stand up to the scrutiny of those who make it their business to assess those sorts of things. Or are called in to try to help pick up the pieces of a broken dog.

cartoon of very scared womanAfter watching this video of beagles being rescued from a laboratory in Spain, and which was suppose to bring tears to my eyes, I found myself feeling more angry and upset, then joyful. These are special needs dogs. Their development has been compromised by confinement and the lack of exposure to novelty. ‘Freeing’ them to a life beyond a cage is a worthwhile goal, but exposing them to things which people think they should enjoy, without acknowledging or understanding that the very ‘freedom’ we subject them to, is scary, is not good enough. Sure it feels good to the handlers to be the ones lifting the latches, and I don’t want to take that away from people, but it shouldn’t be the main goal of ‘rescue’ and I suspect that if we all did some soul searching we’d admit that ‘saving’ animals makes us feel good and is a prime motivator behind our behavior.

Some take that response to an unhealthy end and become hoarders with rooms, cages and kennels full of animals they’ve ‘saved’ but who live lives of neglect and inadequate care both physically and emotionally. Others seem to behave like impulse shoppers, going into situations and ‘saving’ animals and then moving on to the next ‘rescue’ without ever taking their previous purchase out of the box. If the ‘rescue’ is a high visibility one, or can become one, this is often enough to start generating the income in the form of donations, for their ‘almost good enough’ behavior to continue.

The risks of handling dogs as they are being handled in this video are real. Almost everything about the experience is novel, and potentially scary to the dogs. This means that anything associated with the experience has the potential to be scary to the dog in the future. This type of conditioning is so effective that people trying to sell you things use it all the time. Cars are associated with the feelings one has when looking at scantily clad women or powerful appearing men. Cigarettes and soft drinks conjure up images and the associated feelings of freedom and fun. Think about how the smell of those cinnamon rolls baking at the airport food court or mall make you ‘feel’. It doesn’t matter if the texture of grass on a dog’s feet actually hurts them or not, if stepping on grass is associated with being scared, by whatever might have scared them, you can end up with a dog who is reluctant to step on grass because it recreates the feeling of being afraid. The same is true in regard to getting into a vehicle, getting out of a crate, or experiencing any of the myriad sights, sounds and scents a dog may have been exposed to at the same time they were experiencing fear. It doesn’t matter if any harm befell the dog or not. The physical and emotional responses of fear are enough proof to a dog that being afraid is warranted.

Trainers are often called on to help solve problem behaviors in dogs, and there may not be any obvious reasons or causes for the dog’s behavior. Dogs who won’t get in cars, or step outside their houses. There are dogs who no matter how long they are outside come inside and pee behind the couch.

Why are we so reluctant to demand more and better from the people ‘saving’ animals? It’s like settling for ‘fast food’ as a nourishing meal. There will always be those dogs who will be able to thrive despite the challenges they face, but there will be plenty more who because of inappropriate handling, often when they needed good handling the most, who will never find peace and comfort in the lives we can give them. Can we admit that most people looking to adopt pets are not prepared to deal effectively with compromised dogs? Are we ready or willing to look at how transporting dogs might be affecting their future behavior? Can we accept that not all dogs will become happy, confident pets given the time and resources available to their care?

It’s difficult to see the ways animals are abused and disrespected and not want to do something to change it. It’s this response in people that makes me like them the most. I’m all for doing something, I’d just like to see the ‘something’ that many are doing, was as good as it could be. The ability to assess a developmentally challenged or fearful dog’s needs and abilities should be on the ‘to do’ list of anyone involved in rescue. We’d all feel better for it.

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30 comments so far

  1. Debbie Wolfe on

    Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been feeling for a while. I think the first step we need to take, though, it to set some standards, because I don’t see that we, as a rescue community, operate in accordance with any set of best practices. Once we have some measure, I absolutely agree, we need to raise that bar.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am relieved that others had the same response. I feared I was just becoming a grumpy old lady. Well, maybe that’s also happening 😉

      • Debbie Wolfe on

        Well, I know I’m becoming a grumpy old lady, so using me as a standard may not be a great idea. 🙂

  2. Pearl the Puppy on

    Really good post. I saw that beagle video as well and had similar thoughts, although I am much less knowledgeable than you are about fearful dogs and am still in the process of educating myself. Still, I had serious reservations as I watched- it just didn’t seem right. I think this is similar to rescue organizations who relax their standards for potential adopters because they think any home is better than no home. I think a lot of it comes from not knowing any better, especially in the case of those beagles, although honestly that is not really an excuse if you are in the “rescue business.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting. You know enough to have questioned that something wasn’t right, and that’s a step many have not taken. We can do better and many people want to, and are trying to. I think that we continue to do a disservice to dogs when we hold up images and clips like this and tell people they should be feeling good about them.

  3. KellyK on

    I agree with you about raising the criteria. I think one of the first necessary steps is for the rescue community to wrap its heads around what is, really, from the animal’s point of view, worse than euthanasia. Starvation and physical abuse are obviously worse, as are some of the situations you described in the last post, where the dogs spend months or years confined, hardly getting out once a week. Living in constant fear, or constant pain, is probably worse than a humane death.

    There are probably disagreements on where that line should be drawn, and not every organization will have the same answer, but I think that drawing it somewhere helps an organization prioritize. Because if you know that, for example, with the same time and money, you have a good chance of offering 6 shelter dogs something better than euthanasia, versus a minimal chance of offering 1 deeply traumatized dog something better, then it makes it clear that your effort is better spent on the 6.

    • KellyK on

      Also, if rescues do that kind of triage, people who have the skills and expertise to help the really traumatized dogs will be getting a call when that dog’s at the shelter and Rescue ABC says, “Hey, we’d love to help this dog, but it’s more than we can handle. Is it something you can take on?” rather than a year or three later when the dog is back in the shelter or the people who adopted from Rescue ABC can’t get them to come out from under the bed.

      • fearfuldogs on

        You’d hope we’d hear from them. Reality is that those calls are often not made. All too often someone either steps in and offers bad and potentially damaging information.

        And what of the dog who is really too compromised to ever be a good fit for most homes? As good as a trainer is at rehabbing dogs, there are always going to be those (and there seem to be LOTS of them) who will require a level of handling skill most pet owners don’t have, or are inclined to develop. And I am not criticizing them for that. Dogs have survived as well as they have because of their ability to adapt and cope. The dogs coming out of mills and hoarding situations are a whole new breed of dog in a way.

  4. José Dores on

    I didn’t saw the video, but i certainly reconize myself in youir words. In Portugal the rescue comunity doesn’t even have a bar to put higher, theres no bar, no standart, no minimum knowledge necessary to be part on the comunity, its just a comunity of people addicted in the feeling of save the most unfortunate they can get there hands on.
    I spent 8 years of my life trying to say what you say in this post, and the result was my way out.
    The rescue situation in Portugal, like in Spain, is disastrous, thank you for this post, and if you don’t mind i wanted to translate it and put it on my blog, so people can read it and think.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting José you are welcome to translate the post. Let me know when you do so I can add the link to my site. I might as well start getting the word out in other languages. You might also want to check out the post just prior to this one called ‘Sh*t happens’. It’s on the same theme. There are people here in the States (and imagine in other countries) who ARE doing a good job, who do strive for excellence in the work they are doing. I seek them out and try to support them as best as I can. We may not be able to change the big picture to begin with, but we can certainly impact the lives of the animals in our care.

      • José Dores on

        That’s my way of being in life, i’m a nurse,and love it, but i love dogs, and i do dog training also, because unfortunately i can’t live of dog training in my country.
        But i have the blog “bomcaopanheiro”, where i try to spread the word, with things written by some amazing dog trainers in the world, and that includes your blog, and your texts on Dogstardaily.
        Like i said i worked in the shelter for 8 years, in the last 2 years e offered myself and other trainers available to just transmit the basic concepts of dog behavior, and behavior modification to the other volunteers, so they could relate better with the dogs, and understand why they have some behaviors, but im still wayting for them to say when…
        I read the other post, and in the beginning you touch the reason with im still wayting… its a industry, every miserable dog saved its a marketing ad to get fundraising, and the price is the terrible conditions the other less miserable dogs in the shelter have to live to save those, and maintain the marketing… im talking about a shelter in a country in recession, where people contribute with little money, about 15000 euros a year, with 0 euros support of the state and then spends 1000 euros on the treatment of one dog, that like you said will never be a normal dog… is life is unique, but so are the lifes of the other 90 dogs of the shelter, and they only needed the vaccination on time to be saved…

        Sorry about this big reply… maybe im getting grumpy too…

  5. fearfuldogs on

    No apologies necessary José- grumpy is a normal response to these kind of situations I think. I also used to work with shelter volunteers offering a ‘training 101’ orientation. I was fortunate I suppose because the shelter manager gave me free rein to do what I thought best. I don’t think she or all the staff bought into it, but at least I was able to plant a few seeds in the minds of the people coming in to work with the dogs.

    We can’t change everything, but maybe we can something.

  6. Jen on

    I like the analogy its a great way to communicate the point! I also viewed that particular video and I found myself on the edge of my seat watching the body language. I have assisted with a dog behaviourist in Canada now for 4 years and this has been such a frustrating topic. It is very difficult to convey to someone that ‘maybe’ their new home cant provide the level of care a particular dog requires (yes we know the shelter said they just needed some classes..*rolling eyes). Heaven help us if the dog is a serious danger because now the discussion of euthanasia needs to be had and we know people who frequent shelters dont like that particular topic. More frustrating is the fact that the dog ever left the shelter…or more to the source of the problem, how did it ever get into the rescue/shelter system at all! So much more needs to be done to improve how the rescue/shelter groups operate, and Im glad others view it the same. My heart aches for the dogs that I see that are confused and scared, but more importantly it aches for the families who chose to welcome them into their homes and find themselves walking on egg shells and fearing for their family’s safety.
    I must applaud also your use of the word ‘industry’ in your previous post “Sh*t Happens”. It has been noted by many people I know that we have created a demand for rescue dogs so now we need to find a supply. We often ponder here in Canada how in 2011 we can be getting Hurricane Katrina dogs that are 3 years old…..hmmmm….

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining the conversation Jen. It is true that once you tune your eyes into dog body language it’s fascinating (and often painful) to watch. I am continually surprised that we’ve lived with dogs for so long, 1000s of years, yet are functionally illiterate when it comes to understanding them. They on the other hand are so fabulous at reading us, that I suppose we’ve been able to slack off. Unless someone is calling the puppies born of Katrina rescues, Hurricane Katrina dogs, they’d do well to check their math. 😉

  7. Donna and the Dogs on

    This immediately made me think of a shelter someone told me about that I don’t wish to name here. The person was volunteering there and had to stop, couldn’t handle what they saw. Apparently they take in every dog, which they have to because they are a town shelter, but their goal is to be no-kill. The problem is, many of the dogs have been there for years. Locked in kennels, so soft beds because it’s unsanitary, few interactions with people. They spin in their cages non-stop, just to do something, or because they’ve become insane….it’s really sad. Chances are, no one is ever going to adopt them. It makes you question how “humane” it is to be no-kill…

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Donna. I think that the criteria needs to be raised for how we shelter dogs as well. The old models for the standard of care seem barbaric. No reason we can’t be raising the bar for everyone involved in the process. Where there’s a will there’s a way. Some have found the will and it’s refreshing to see.

  8. Bluff Country Canine Rescue on

    As someone who has recently started a canine rescue in SE Minnesota, this was an excellent post for me to see. Although I can’t speak for what has been done before, I know that I have much higher standards and goals regarding the way dogs are evaluated, treated and housed than what you are discussing. I am aware that I have much to learn but with the availability of the Internet, there is so much skill and knowledge available. There is no excuse for doing a mediocre job in today’s world. As much as it pains me to see the horrible photos and read the gut-wrenching stories, I know that I can’t save them all and have chosen to focus on giving the few that I CAN rescue, the very best chance of finding a forever home that I can. And then moving on to help another.

    This blog is one of the many resources that I use to keep me informed.

    • fearfuldogs on

      All the best to you in your work. There are people doing excellent jobs of assessing and placing dogs. When someone is looking to adopt a dog I send them to those groups, knowing that I can trust that the dogs they are rehoming are temperamentally sound and will make good and safe family pets.

  9. Tegan on

    Your statement, “Can we accept that not all dogs will become happy, confident pets given the time and resources available to their care?” is SO TRUE. Thank-you.

    Some animals are not suitable to be pets. Or, some animals have such an arduous and intense rehabilitation ahead of them, that it’s too stressful and inhumane to do so.

    I’ve cued your post to be tweeted. It’s important for the rescue world to hear this.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. There are reasons people resist adopting dogs from shelters. I have spoken to people who, after a bad experience with a shelter dog, will never adopt again. They don’t trust that the dog they get will make a good pet. So they go to pet shops or shop online.

  10. Pike on

    Having a Beagle/Greyhound mix (yes, from a rescue), I did cry when seeing the video because it made me sad (how can those dogs NOT put the nose to the ground like any good old hound and sniff and go?!) but also hopeful for their future when they finally will be able to be dogs.

    I actually thought that the rescue workers were much more patient than I would have expected and did give the dogs the time to leave the crates at their own pace.

    Do I think that – generally speaking – rescue organizations/shelters can do better? Yes, I do.

    I believe ALL of us can do better if we put more time, thought or effort into things. All of us are human and imperfect and that includes everyone working on rescues. They just have the misfortune to be in that uncomfortable spot in the middle where they will always be criticized for interfering from one side and not doing enough from the other side.

    How would you have gone about dealing with these Beagles from the moment that they were loaded onto the truck?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think anyone who chooses to do anything that has the potential to effect the lives of anyone, be they doctors, nutritionists, dog trainers or electricians, has a responsibility to be sure they are educated to a standard which provides them with the ability to behave in ways which ensure the safety and well-being of their clients or charges. Can we always learn more and improve our skills, sure we can, and hopefully we will. People who participate in or run rescues are there out of choice and don’t just happen to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being there when it comes to having to deal with appraisals of their behavior. A debriefing of any rescue or transport should be done for the purpose of improving practices and protocols. Maybe that was done in the case of these animals, I don’t know.

      I offer full day seminars on the care and handling of fearful dogs. Last one I talked so long my lips got chapped! I can’t answer your question completely, but I’d do this for a start-

      I’d create environments for the dogs where they could feel safe. I’d give them time to chill out, to give them time for the levels of stress hormones in their bodies to lower. This might take days or weeks, depending on the dog, but why rush dogs who have spent years in a kennel? I’d assess each dog individually and provide them with choices and skills before forcing them to deal with potential triggers. I’d know what they liked, what made them feel good, so it could be used for counter conditioning. I’d speak with a vet about behavioral medications to lower anxiety levels in dogs who were not showing signs of lowered stress levels.

  11. Pike on

    Very good points. Especially about the rush – nothing like a fearful dog to point out to us that we are doing things too fast. I know from lots of own experience with both – the Beahound and the Pom! Thankfully they also recover rather quickly from my mistakes.

    I am not sure why this particular blog entry got my hackles up a bit, as I usually love what you post here. Since I am not involved in rescue at all, it shouldn’t be that I felt stepped upon my own toes here.

    As far as I can figure out, I expected some kind of positive reinforcement in combination with the “raising criteria” part and felt cheated when it didn’t come. Talking about conditioning 🙂

    Anyhow, this is a great blog – thank you!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sticking around even though I got your hackles up 😀

      I appreciate that people are motivated to do right for animals, but also think dogs deserve the best we can give them. I don’t always manage it myself, but I’d rather not make excuses for a poor performance, embarrassing as it may be, I’d rather improve on it.

      There seem to be many who call themselves ‘rescuers’ but seem to only be dog ‘movers’. They move dogs from one place to another, patting themselves on the back for getting them out of one place, but if required, couldn’t tell you where they ended up. I’ve been different parts of the movement chain myself. Hoping the next link is holding up their end of the bargain. I’ve been very disappointed lately.

      Appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

  12. Fostermom on

    An update on those 9 beagles in the video- They are all doing extremely well in their new homes. As are the two from the first rescue. Great care was taken in placing them.

    The 40 that recently came over from Spain are also doing good. It is not easy to adopt on of these boys. There are very strict standards which must be met in order to adopt or foster.
    In just the 2.5 weeks they have been here most are playing and showing puppy like behavior. All are with experienced people. Great care and patience are being taken in teaching them and training them how to be happy, confident, loving, dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that. It’s great to hear.

    • BFP foster mama on

      Thank you for mentioning that, Fostermom. (And none have a fear of grass.) I’ve worked with this organization since it began almost a year ago. We have rescued more than 50 beagles from animal testing facilities.

      I’m sure you don’t mean to be patronizing but we have a lot of experience with dogs from these backgrounds. Some of the comments above vent about shelter rescues – I hope people are aware there is a difference between laboratory dogs and shelter dogs. There is a difference between laboratory rescues and puppy mill rescues too. In many respects laboratory dogs are not even dogs (yet).

      Is it easy to turn a frightened lab animal into a happy pet? No, it’s not. They need a lot of attention, patience, and love. We don’t do it because it feels good, or for attention. Teaching a 2-year-old dog to go up a flight of stairs, or introducing a leash to a 5-year-old dog who’s been confined all his life…let’s just say there are things I can think of that are way more fun.

  13. Eric Andrist on

    I am now the proud papa to one of the 40 rescued beagles from Spain. I can’t speak more highly of Beagle Freedom Project, and their care of these dogs. I went over intending to just be a foster dad to one of them. Many of them had already been placed either in a foster home or adopted out, but I had a good 6 or 7 to play with and choose from that day. While you could tell the dogs had no training or manners, they were very well adjusted, friendly and playful. I’ve had mine for 2 weeks now and he’s adjusted amazingly well, along with the help of my other two dogs. One of the things that they pretty much require, is that the beagles go to homes with other dogs, and I think this is a great thing. “Scout” was not at all housebroken when I got him and he pretty much is now just from watching my other two dogs. He even uses the doggy door to go in and out.

    I’m all for high standards in rescues, but I can’t help feel that your blog was disparaging of this rescue operation. I’ve seen nothing out of line, and only above board care and procedures when dealing with these wonderful dogs.


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